A final flush of late summer heat welcomes the return of life to Hiram College. The long languid days of July and August are gone, replaced by the sudden arrival of hundreds of students. They congregate here from across the globe to discuss everything from current affairs to classical philosophy.
Yet all too often this conversation contains a dark story. We in the Environmental Studies Program are aware of this darkness – we hear about it in our classrooms and watch it debated in public forums; we witness it every time we drive past a processing plant or an incinerator. As one grows in awareness, sometimes the world's dysfunctions come to seem ubiquitous and overwhelming. But in developing the ability to manage that stress, we cultivate the capacity for effective action--the antidote to the hopelessness sometimes wrought by the many challenges of our times.
Two weeks ago, participants in the Sustainability, Environment and Engaged Scholars (SEEDS) Program gathered to discuss objectives for the upcoming academic year. It represented a rare opportunity for those of us involved to engage in a collaborative dialogue with peers.
Our mission that first day was to examine what we saw as the “challenge” of our work; namely, the omnipresent question of energy. All living things consume, allocate, or transmit energy in some form, but as we would go on to examine in our conversation, the energy used to power our daily routines relies on exponentially expanding the availability of finite resources. Overshadowing our dialog was the knowledge of what this pattern meant for the many stakeholders involved in real-life cases across the country:
- To the North, plans are in the works to ship tar sands from Canada’s boreal forest to the State of Texas at a rate of nearly 830,000 barrels a day.
- To the East, debates rage over the installation of wind turbines along the Atlantic Coast.
- To the South, communities are still attempting to mediate the effects of one of the worst oil spills, and arguably the most devastating single-source environmental disaster of modern history. And…
- On the Western frontier, huge expanses of public lands continue to be converted to natural gas production.
It's easy to feel powerless, but our work with the TREE house is just one example of a great opportunity for engagement. With everything in mind, how do we even begin to approach this “challenge,” which is so very multifaceted in both its causes and consequences? Which course of action would be most effective; most holistic? Where do we even begin?
These are common questions for almost every college student who has taken that fateful step through this supposed portal to adulthood. College is a time of great personal and intellectual growth. It is an era that fosters coming into one’s sense of identity within a larger world, and a growing awareness of the societal, cultural and ecological context in which one lives. Yet for many rising scholars, it is also a time of overwhelming stress, discouragement, and fear.
I felt that fear first-hand when during my first semester of college I found myself huddled in two (yet still inadequate) comforters, trying to fight the righteous indignation rising in me from a recent lecture on mountain top removal. The bulk of contemporary challenges (whether social, environmental, or transcending the false dichotomy of the two) do not have readily available solutions, and this can feel overwhelming. The most dangerous consequence of this mindset, of course, is the potential for apathy. Yet nihilism will not address the growth of the aforementioned industries or help us design an approach to the energy question. So what will?
We begin, of course, with planting a seed. Not a literal seed, although I’m sure any effort will entail planting plenty of those, but a figurative seed. Believe it or not, it is possible to both recognize and realistically appreciate the problems of our generation and still be effective in one’s work on them. The skills needed to do this are honed through years of experience and personal development, yet simplifying them to their most basic form can reveal a toolbox to get our seed in the ground.
The first tool is systems-thinking. We know that challenges, however they are characterized, are multidimensional manifestations of very complex patterns of economy, nature and society. Our current energy situation comes from an industrial mindset which systematically externalizes its costs, and expresses itself in very complicated ways.
Instead of getting overwhelmed by this complexity, it is valuable instead to adopt a holistic perspective. Global trends often show themselves through local impacts. Knowing this opens a door. Through systems thinking, one can see both the global and the local significance of a project like that at the TREE House.
Another tool is simply hope. At a presentation at Oberlin a few weeks ago, accomplished environmental author Wendell Berry said that “hope requires looking into the face of hopelessness.” The truth is that we need hope – we need a reason to keep going or else we succumb to inaction.Yet hope does not mean disregarding those things that make us hopeless. Environmentalist Paul Hawken stated in a commencement speech at University of Portland, “if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”
Probably the greatest asset in the toolbox is other people. While debates rage over the global effectiveness of individual actions, collaborative movements are another matter, a sentiment articulated by Margaret Meade’s timeless wisdom: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Having others around you also gives you something even more valuable than picket signs: a community. Hiram is gifted in that it has many ways for interested people to get involved in what they love. The SEED scholars are just one of many groups and initiatives on campus. They include, but are not limited to: the Stone Soup Co-Op, Students Organized for Sustainability (SOS), and the Student Environmental Action Coalition. These are just a few of the tools available here at Hiram.
I am far from having it all figured out myself. Keeping these few things in mind helps ward off some of the hopelessness brought on by awareness, and gives clues as to where to begin.
We emerged from our first SEEDS meeting with a vision. First on the agenda was to familiarize ourselves with the logistics of the TREE house. The site itself is still under construction, but knowing where we scholars fit into the grand scheme of the project helps focus our thinking on it. We now have plans to review the energy audit of last year and identify all potential stakeholders. With the ground work set and our resources acknowledged, we can then move forward with implementing our objectives. We also discussed a few ideas about possible community workshops to educate Hiram residents about those facets of the energy question that most intimately affect them, with the consensus that any effort should be pragmatic in nature. Will this solve the energy question completely? No, but it’s a step. The seed has been planted.
Photo and Image Credit: Caitlin Joseph